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‘Searching for Bobby Fischer’ (PG)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 13, 1993

The two opponents wait for the signal, eyes glued warily to each other. Not only must they be quick, they must be right. One false move could mean disaster. They're going to need vision -- the ability to see victory more than a dozen moves ahead.

The signal comes. The first raises his wooden piece, slams it down and immediately punches a clock next to him. His opponent responds instantly, slamming his piece and pounding the clock. The noise of clacking wood and thumping fists becomes so fast and furious, it sounds like a stick fight between martial artists.

If you thought chess was just a board game, just watch "Searching for Bobby Fischer," a thrilling drama (based on the nonfiction book by Fred Waitzkin about his son, Josh) about obsessive competition. When gifted 7-year-old Max Pomeranc (he's Josh) enters this most dangerous game, he has only his innocent genius -- and a few concerned adults -- to protect him. A Mozart in the making, he has learned it all by watching the hard-core players at Washington Square -- chain-smoking veterans abuzz with tough banter and fast moves.

His mother (Joan Allen) recognizes Pomeranc's talent first and informs husband Joe Mantegna. Unable to believe his son is a genius, Mantegna sits down to a game with him and promptly whips him.

"It's OK to beat him," Allen reassures her son. "You won't hurt his feelings."

"She thinks you're throwing the game," says Mantegna. The second game begins. Pomeranc pushes aside the telephone books he was using as a booster for his chair. Ominous music permeates the soundtrack. Mantegna suddenly looks apprehensive.

"Your move," says the kid.

Mantegna realizes his son has a gift from the gods. For both of them, this marks the beginning of an odyssey through local and state championships, against opponents (and their obsessive parents) who hate him. Pomeranc's grubby-fingered quest for mastery will require training with guru Ben Kingsley, who advocates steely discipline, even prima-donna contempt, to win. After joining the pallid, the hard-driven and the snotty (you know, the chess community), Pomeranc will also have to maintain ties with Washington Square chess-gladiator Laurence Fishburne, who advocates quick strikes, gut instinct -- and none of that prissy stuff.

From the beginning, Pomeranc carries the spirit of American champion Bobby Fischer with him. Another childhood genius, who grew up to beat the best of them, and who sometimes disappeared from world view years at a time, Fischer (seen in ethereal black and white news footage) hovers over Pomeranc and this movie like a patron saint.

As the boy with a cute little lisp, who emerges from his toy room to mastermind his kings, queens and bishops to tactical victory, Pomeranc imbues the movie with irresistible naivete. Mantegna, as is often the case, is effortlessly sensational, juggling paternal pride and wonderment with victory-bent singlemindedness. Fishburne, Kingsley and Allen are also good at their game.

But the real star is screenwriter and director Steve Zaillian, a formula master, who plots a state-of-the-art stratagem of heroism, struggle and moral dilemma. He introduces us to a world we've never seen before, an arcane universe full of lifelong contenders, exalted winners, madly obsessive parents, and over-motivated youth missing out on the golden years of normal childhood. He employs every trick and convention in the Hollywood book, but with such expertise, it feels original. Never were the emotions this roundly affected -- around a simple board game.

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